, BANGUI, Jan 2 – Rebels in the Central African Republic said on Wednesday they were suspending their advance and would hold peace talks with the government, after regional armies sent reinforcements to stop them reaching the capital.
The Seleka rebel coalition’s lightning three-week advance from the north of the country to within striking distance of the capital Bangui in the south has raised fears of a spreading crisis and drawn regional calls for negotiations with the government in the Gabonese capital Libreville.
Rebel spokesman Eric Massi announced the rebels were ready to talk, saying: “I confirm that we have decided to suspend the offensive towards Bangui, and that we will send a delegation to Gabon to participate in peace talks.”
A top diplomat told AFP the talks were expected to start on January 8 and would be mediated by Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who was named the region’s pointman on dialogue efforts.
Massi said the rebels were still demanding the departure of President Francois Bozize, whom they accuse of failing to honour a 2007 peace deal.
Bozize has said he is ready for unconditional talks toward forming a power-sharing government.
“The departure of President Bozize is still one of our demands because we do not believe he is sincere,” said Massi.
“The Seleka coalition is however in favour of peace, and we have always said we do not want to enter Bangui.”
Central African nations have begun sending reinforcements to Damara, the last major town between the rebels and the capital, to bolster the Central African Republic’s army against the rebels.
The regional troops are fighting under the banner of multinational African force FOMAC, which was launched in 2008 by the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) in a bid to stabilise the coup- and rebellion-prone country.
Northern neighbour Chad, whose President Idriss Deby is an ally of Bozize, has contributed most of the troops to the force, which will reach its full strength of 760 by the end of the week.
FOMAC’s commander sternly warned the rebels Wednesday against trying to take Damara – which sits between Bangui and the rebel-held town of Sibut, 160 kilometres from the capital.
“Let it be clear, we will not give up Damara,” said General Jean-Felix Akaga.
“If the rebels attack Damara that would amount to a declaration of war and would mean that they have decided to engage the 10 central African states,” he told reporters in Bangui.